NOTE: This Spoiler was sent in by GMHarris who says..."The commercials look adorable, and children may want to see it. It is adorable, but it is also a realistic look at Mother Nature, and there are casualties. There is nothing too graphic, but some of it is really sad so think about the emotional maturity of your child when deciding whether or not to go."
The movie opens over the frozen waste of Antarctica. Morgan Freeman narrates that it used to be a tropical forested area, but continental drift sent it south and covered it with ice. This changed the population there as well, but one tribe stayed behind, perhaps through stubbornness. You begin to see small black figures in the white ice. As it moves in closer you learn that these are the emperor penguins.
Every year they march over seventy miles of ice to the breeding grounds. The group gets larger as they get closer, with the advantage of shared warmth and safety. Stragglers may never arrive safely.
The primary advantages of the breeding ground is that it is somewhat sheltered, few predators have access, and the ice is so thick that there is not a concern with the young falling through into the icy waters. That thick ice also means that while there is probably food swimming below, it cannot be accessed without another seventy mile march. The penguins need to rely on their fat stores for long periods of time during the breeding season.
Once the penguins have gathered, mate selection begins. There a fewer males than females, so unpaired females will often try and disrupt the courtships of others. During these squabbles the males will usually just preen.
Footage is shown of penguin couples caressing each other and being very affectionate. The pairs are monogamous for the season, though after the season is over the pairings dissolve.
The next phase of the breeding season is egg production. The cold environment will crack the egg and kill the developing chick within, so the egg is surrounded by the flesh and feathers of the mother. The pouchy area can be lifted fairly easily, so you see some mothers briefly presenting their eggs.
The mother loses a third of her body weight in producing the egg, and she has not eaten since setting out for the breeding grounds, so it is about time for her to leave. First, she must transfer the egg to the father. The patiently practice the steps of this transfer many times before actually doing it. Some eggs do not make it, falling between the parents who watch helplessly as fissures develop in the shell and the egg is lost. The film speculates that these may be younger, less experienced pairs. Regardless, there is now no reason to stay at the breeding ground so both parents leave.
The mothers who have successfully transferred the eggs head to the sea for their first meal in about three months. Their primary foods are fish and squid, but they are also at risk for being eaten. A seal snatches one of the mothers as the narrator points out that two lives are lost, because she will not be able to take food back for her chick.
Meanwhile, the fathers are being hit with a severe storm. It is winter in the Southern hemisphere, so they are in constant night, with the Southern lights blazing overhead. Winds that can reach 100 MPH blow, and even without the wind chill, the temperature would be 56 degrees below 0. The males huddle together and take turns spending time at the center where it is warmer, but more eggs are lost. The storm does clear, and the eggs begin to hatch. The hatchlings are hungry, but the fathers have a little bit of a milky fluid in the back of their throat that provides the first meal. It will only last a day or two, and then if the mother has not come the chicks will starve. You see this happen to a few.
Finally, the mothers come back. The scene is somewhat chaotic as mothers and fathers call out, but eventually each of the remaining pairs finds each other, and the remaining chicks can feed. The reunion for the parents is brief, as the father must now take his turn feeding. Another transfer is done, this time with a live chick. The fathers and the chicks call to each other, memorizing each others voices.
The fathers head off, themselves now at reduced body weight. The film speculates that this is the reason that there are fewer males, some of them simply may not make it past this point.
The chicks are now taking little trips away from their mothers, learning how to walk and slide but still returning to their mothers for warmth and safety. It does lead to new dangers. One comes in the form of predators. A large bird they do not identify (maybe an albatross) comes and starts attacking some chicks. It would not be a danger to a full-grown penguin, but for a small one the risk is will. They do not show the bird killing one of the chicks, but it is implied. Then, another storm comes, and not all of the chicks get back underneath their mothers before it starts.
Some of the chicks survive this storm by huddling together, but some do not. We see one mother pecking at a frozen chick and getting no response. Every year some mother who loses her chick will try and steal another, but the rest of the group does not allow it, with other mothers forcing the interloper away.
Eventually the mothers need to go feed again, and they need to leave before the fathers get back. Some chicks try to follow, but ultimately have to stay and wait. They are larger and stronger now, and the worst part of the winter is past. As the fathers come back, they call to their chicks and voices are recognized.
As the seasons change and the temperature rises, the ice begins to melt, making the trip from breeding ground to feeding area shorter. The parents continue taking turns coming and going, but can now spend some time together in between. The chicks are getting bigger and their down is starting to be replaced by their adult feathers. When the time is right, the parents will leave and not come back. The ice continues to break up, bringing the water constantly closer to the chicks, sometimes leaving them floating on little islands of ice. Eventually they will enter the water too, and fish, and in five years they will be ready for breeding as well, taking their own place in the March of the Penguins.
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